An Iconic René Magritte Landscape Could Fetch $60 Million at Sotheby’s in the Latest Sign That the Trophy Market Continues to Rage

The work has never before been sold.

Rene Magritte, L’empire des lumières (1961) . Image courtesy Sotheby's.

A classic Surrealist painting by René Magritte, which has never been sold before, has been revealed as one of the likely blockbusters at Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary auction in London on March 3. 

L’empire des lumières (1961) hails from the Gillion Crowet collection in Belgium, where it has been held since it was created. Magritte painted the work for Anne-Marie Crowet Gillion, the daughter of one of the artist’s most important patrons, and she has kept it ever since. The two first met when Crowet Gillion was 16 years old and before the artist was widely known. Magritte, who said she represented his “ideal” muse, offered to paint her portrait. They remained lifelong friends and she frequently posed for him.

The work is poised to recalibrate the market for the artist if it meets expectations. The estimate, in excess of $60 million, is more than double Magritte’s current record of $26.8 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2018.

The work is part of a series of 17 paintings, also known as “L’empire des lumières,which was born out of high demand for the composition, according to Sotheby’s. When one of the works was exhibited in the 1954 Venice Biennale, it was promised to four buyers, and ultimately sold to Peggy Guggenheim. Magritte then created three additional pieces for those who had lost out, carefully reimagining and enriching the composition, and the works evolved over time.

Rene Magritte, Le Principe du Plaisir (1937). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Rene Magritte, Le Principe du Plaisir (1937). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

There has been some speculation that the upcoming auction could tip off a string of Magritte sales.

“My general impression of the market is that it remains very strong, with demand for great works far outstripping supply,” Thomas Danziger, an attorney who handles many high-profile auction consignments, told Artnet News in an email. “High prices for works often bring works off of collectors’ walls and into the auction room, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see major artworks like this Magritte come to market this spring. Our clients and others made a ton of money over the past two years, and they want great things to put on the walls of their new homes.”

The top-selling work by Magritte to date, which brought in the $26.8 million, was the much earlier painting Le Principe du plaisir, according to the Artnet Price Database. The second-highest auction price, $24.6 million for A la rencontre du plaisir (1962), was achieved at Christie’s London in February 2020. And Le lieu commun (1962), a classic Magritte showing a man in a bowler hat, sold for $25.5 million at Christie’s London in February 2019. A total of five works have sold above $20 million each, and 20 works have sold above $10 million.

René Magritte, Le lieu common (1964) sold for $24.3 million. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The work has been loaned for inclusion in major Magritte shows around the world over the past several decades and has been exhibited in the Magritte Museum in Brussels for the past 10 years. “The family feel that the work is now ready for the natural next stage in its journey,” a Sotheby’s representative told Artnet News.

In “a fun nod to the cinematic qualities of the almost-immersive painting,” the auction house notes that a work from the same series inspired a scene in the horror movie The Exorcist. The director William Friedkin once explained, “I chose the house to match the Magritte painting. I saw [the painting] in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it’s called Empire of Light by Rene Magritte. I had that in mind… and I chose the house to match the Magritte painting… the streetlamp…the shaft of light.” 

Ahead of the March 3 sale, the painting will be exhibited at Sotheby’s offices in Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, and London.

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